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Commentary: I. Collapse? Really?

Collapse is a scary word, and some people doubt it is even relevant to us. Obviously we are facing some major challenges in this century. Does that mean collapse? What is collapse, exactly? When societies have collapsed, what actually happened? How bad is it? Are there ways of reducing the badness? While historic events can’t give a totally accurate picture of the future, they can at least give us some ground to stand on.

When looked carefully, “collapse” is actually an extremely common phenomenon in nations and societies - they rise to a particular level of function and then run into hard limits, often ecological limits, as documented by, among others, Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail and Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Systems. This causes a sudden and radical slump in complexity and a drop to a lower level of function.

How far is up for grabs, but the level can be extremely low - there’s Easter Island, for example, whose population went extinct. More recently Rwanda and Burundi have several times in my lifetime collapsed into untenable violence and endless civil war, with horrifyingly bloody consequences for the people, ones that don’t look that far off of Mad Max.

On the other hand, we could look at the most recent society to collapse: Iceland. In 2008 and into 2009, the country, which had become enormously wealthy and prosperous, underwent an economic collapse, the effects of which are still playing out. The banking collapse in Iceland was the largest ever suffered, relative to the nation’s size, in economic history.

What happened in Iceland is probably very reassuring for people who are worried about collapse - the situation wasn’t at all pleasant for people, but compared to Rwanda, it was a walk in the park. There was rioting and the government was, broadly speaking, changed, and there were some suicides and emigrations. The costs of dealing with the crisis were enormous, there was widespread unemployment, interest rates shot up and imports stalled, there was a foreclosure crisis, many formerly high-paying professionals had to go back to the fishing industry (which led to prompt fish stock collapses), imported goods became expensive and people got a lot poorer. On the other hand, everyone’s food supply was comparatively safe.

So the first thing we can say about collapse is that it is highly variable - you can have economic collapse, you can have an energy-supply-related collapse, a political collapse, collapse into civil war - and some collapses are better than others. Dmitry Orlov, author of the superb Reinventing Collapse, which compares what he believes is the coming US collapse with the collapse of the Soviet Union (which he in part witnessed), makes precisely this point in his very thoughtful and funny essay “The Five Stages of Collapse:

Although many people imagine collapse to be a sort of elevator that goes to the sub-basement (our Stage 5) no matter which button you push, no such automatic mechanism can be discerned. Rather, driving us all to Stage 5 will require that a concerted effort be made at each of the intervening stages. That all the players seem poised to make just such an effort may give this collapse the form of a a a classical tragedy - a conscious but inexorable march to perdition - rather than a farce (”Oops! Ah, here we are, Stage 5.” - “So, whom do we eat first?” - “Me! I am delicious!”).

I admit, I find it enormously difficult to imagine a scenario in which the US does not collapse on some level - in nearly every available measure, it is in danger of doing so. While we trumpet that we’ve averted economic collapse, it would be more accurate to say we’ve pushed some of it off for a few years, and made it more likely that crushing economic burdens will fall more heavily on people under fifty and future generations. Much the same can be said of our energy crisis and of climate change. It is hard to imagine anyone who would deny that in all three areas our policies are short-term, designed to stop us from bearing a burden right now rather actually averting a crisis.

What leads me to believe that these crises will be as severe as a collapse? Some fairly trustworthy and impartial analysts suggest that it’s likely. For example, in 2005, the US Department of Energy commissioned the Hirsch Report to evaluate whether Peak Oil was a meaningful threat. The DOE report concluded that with twenty years of WWII-level investment, we could avert collapse, but that less than twenty years means a major crisis. Since we’re not engaged in a WWII-level build-out of renewable energies and even the USGS predicts peak oil by 2023, simple arithmetic suggests that we are headed for some fairly serious problems.

What about climate change? Well, as already mentioned, there’s The Stern Review, compiled by Sir Nicholas Stern, on the economic consequences of climate change. Among his conclusions (based upon a now-out-of-date set of assumptions about climate targets and their viability - he assumes that 550 ppm avoids more consequences than it probably does) was that unchecked, climate change could lead to mitigation costs of up to 20 percent of world GDP - a burden no economy could bear without, well, collapsing. Given that we show no signs of being able to stabilize our ecology at the lower levels we know are safe, it seems reasonable to assume we are facing high mitigation costs, with heavy economic consequences.

I don’t think I need to explain why I think an economic collapse could happen - we know that they occur all the time, and we know by most assessments that one nearly occurred in fall 2008. That is, we’ve already seen a stair-step down to a lower level of economic security in the US.

We also know energy supply collapses happen - often along with economic collapses. For example, former Soviet Prime Minister Yegor Gaider wrote a book arguing that the Soviet Union collapsed (under his watch, actually) due to its dependency on foreign energy exports and the shift of its population out of the countryside and into cities. For a long time, the Soviet Union was able to rely on energy exports to allow it to pay for food on foreign markets, but when energy prices collapsed, there were not enough farmers left to grow food for the population and the government could not hold.

We know that this caused some subsidiary collapses - Cuba collapsed, for instance, because the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending it oil. The country lost one-fifth of its energy imports and societal structures largely fell apart because of lack of energy to run their highly technological agricultural system.

What’s interesting about the examples of Cuba is that it is further evidence to suggest that fairly small energy resource shocks can cause fairly serious consequences - one-fifth of all oil shouldn’t have led to serious hunger. Most people would reasonably argue that waste in the system and proper allocation of resources should have been able to absorb this - or will argue that the fault was the Cuban government’s. To some extent that last point is probably true, but we should remember that we have examples from the US that show that small energy supply disruptions can be extremely destructive - the oil shocks of the 1970s and the major recession that followed resulted from a reduction in imports of just over 5 percent.

So yes, I think we’re on a path toward some kind of collapse, without necessarily assuming cannibalism or even roving gangs of white-supremacist kale-stealers. I would like such a collapse to be averted very much, but it seems less and less likely that we will do so. And the evidence is becoming compelling that we are going to be facing economic, energy and climate crises all at the same time - and that I find it hard to imagine us navigating successfully. Is it impossible? Probably not, but certainly improbable.

What are the common features of collapsed societies? I could go back to Rome, of course, but there’s probably no need. There are some common features of modern collapses that we can speak of:

  1. People get really mad at their government. This usually leads to some measure of civil unrest, and often changes of government, some of which are meaningful and some of which are not. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad - it also, as we know, can lead to the government or others scapegoating someone or other, which is really bad. Generally the better outcomes occur when the government seems to respond to the people, and also, when the government gets out of the people’s way and also lets them respond to events.
  2. Crime rates go up and services like police protection are less available or privatized - one universal feature of collapsed societies is that they are more violent. But that doesn’t tend to mean warlords killing everyone in their path - it tends to mean more street violence, robbery, rape and murder, sometimes along with for-profit kidnapping. It tends to mean that people are vulnerable, and afraid, and often can’t trust the authorities - it could be rather like being African-American in many poor urban neighborhoods, or it could be like living in Baghdad. Generally speaking, you don’t want your kids to go out very much, you tend to avoid going out yourself and safety becomes a serious issue.
  3. Everyone gets poorer fast. When societies collapse, the percentage of people who are poor goes way up - in Argentina, for example, the 2001 collapse virtually wiped out the middle class and pushed poverty levels up from lows around 20 percent to nearly 57 percent. This, I think, is the one universal likely outcome, and of course, one that is happening now.
  4. The cost and attainability of food becomes an issue. Accounts from Argentina, which was previously both stable and affluent, suggest that many desired foods, particularly imports, are often unavailable, and more importantly, widespread economic impacts make it harder to buy food. This, and a lack of medical care, impacts people’s health, and depression and drug and alcohol use begin to rise.
  5. Services and utilities are widely disrupted. Sometimes the disruption comes, as is common among the US poor, because people can’t afford to pay the bill - thousands of US households, for example, will have their utilities cut off on April 1, just as soon as it is legal (most utilities can’t cut off a household in the winter). But people also endure service interruptions because of aging infrastructure and social disruption. You are much more likely to spend time with no power, have no trash pickup, run out of gas and have the delivery trucks not come through….
  6. People are pushed together - whether they are herded into ghettos or lose their housing, extended families, biological and otherwise, come to rely on each other. So do communities and neighbors - when someone has food, you share; when someone needs a place to stay, you let them in. A culture of sharing emerges, and it is extremely useful to have stuff to share.

These are the near-universals - all these things happen in collapsed societies pretty much inevitably. In some collapsed societies, your neighbors start murdering you, or gangs terrorize your neighborhood - but this isn’t inevitable.

Now the question is, if collapse is likely, where do you concentrate your efforts? Do you try and prevent it, even if that is increasingly unlikely, or do you focus your efforts on, as Orlov puts it, stopping the elevator to the basement? I think the answer is both, but that you should emphasize strategies that are dual purpose - whenever you face a likelihood of major systems failure, multi-purpose strategies that both reduce impacts and increase resilience are clear winners. I like to think that most - not all - of what I advocate falls into this category.

If a collapse of some sort does happen, what helps? We know, for example, that social supports make an enormous difference in a collapsing society. Reinventing Collapse, for example, finds that the major factors in keeping the Russian people from disaster were a system of social supports. Making medical care, food and shelter available to people in crisis keeps things from being too awful.

Faced with the “special period,” the Cuban government, for all its limitations, did some things that were remarkable, because they are precisely the opposite of what America has been doing - they strengthened social supports at the expense of potential growth. They expanded educational programs into more, smaller campuses, put more clinics out into rural and underserved areas and expanded food support programs.

Unfortunately, that’s not the culture we live in - Americans uniformly respond to economic and social crisis by beefing up government and military programs and by cutting social safety networks. We’re already seeing this.

The other thing that matters to reduce the rate of descent toward the basement are self-help strategies. In Cuba, for example, small-scale agriculture in urban centers did a lot (not everything, imported staples also mattered) to alleviate hunger and nutritional deficiencies. In Russia, according to all contemporary economic analyses, there should have been widespread starvation - but there wasn’t, largely because small-scale localized economics arose to replace what was missing. In Argentina, cardboard scavenging came to support forty thousand people - just barely, though. In the US during the Great Depression, an example of near-collapse in many ways, the number of informal economy jobs skyrocketed. In 1932, The New York Times observed that there were now seven thousand people, most of them adults, shining shoes in NYC, while in 1928, there had been less than two hundred.

Self-help/subsistence strategies and social support networks are not in conflict in these situations - both are needed, particularly when social support programs are under fire or overwhelmed, as they are in the US at present. Neither can meet all needs nor mitigate all outcomes alone - but simultaneously, in the best-case scenarios, they can keep people alive and fed and reasonably secure.

On some level, it seems churlish, I think, to settle for that. Everyone wants better for themselves, their friends, the world, their children - I do too. If we are going to have better for ourselves, we have to find it in things that are not vulnerable to collapse - in beauty and community, in the pleasure of good work and family, in things that are low-cost, simple and available. We’re going to have to find a new definition of better.

The good news is that other societies have proved that you can have things like good health, an education for your children, enough food, strong community, support networks for the vulnerable, the pleasures of home and family - all during periods of decline from one level to another. We know that this is possible - so our central project becomes ensuring that it is feasible for us, that we can offer our children something worth having, even if we have less.

Sharon Astyk is a writer, teacher and science blogger (www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook) and a member of the Board of Directors of ASPO-USA.

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